April 26, 2013 4:04 pm
In a letter to Congress, writes the Guardian, the White House stated that officials believe, with “varying amounts of confidence,” that the chemical weapon sarin was used in the ongoing conflict in Syria and that the use of this type of weapon “would very likely have originated with” supporters of Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian government. The link between the use of sarin and al-Assad is not completely firm, though, and the U.S. Intelligence community is looking for more proof of what’s really going on.
Sarin, wrote Smart News previously, is a nerve agent first developed in 1938 Germany. “A colourless, odourless gas with a lethal dose of just 0.5 mg for an adult human,” sarin, “can be spread as a gaseous vapor, or used to contaminate food. The CDC says that symptoms can arise within seconds, and can include, like VX, convulsions, loss of consciousness, paralysis, and death.” And according to a 2002 article from the New York Times, sarin “dissipates to nondeadly levels after a few hours.”
How exactly are investigators supposed to figure out what’s going on in Syria? According to the Guardian, the United Nations will carry out analyses of soil samples collected in Syria to try to figure out if sarin gas was used. But, says Wired‘s Danger Room, there is another way to check for sarin.
The U.S. military tests for evidence of nerve gas exposure by looking for the presence of the enzyme cholinesterase in red blood cells and in plasma. (Sarin messes with the enzyme, which in turn allows a key neurotransmitter to build up in the body, causing rather awful muscle spasms.) The less cholinesterase they find, they more likely there was a nerve gas hit.
The problem is, some pesticides will also depress cholinesterase. So the military employs a second test. When sarin binds to cholinesterase it loses a fluoride. The pesticides don’t do this. This other test exposes a blood sample to fluoride ions, which reconstitutes sarin if it’s there, in which case it can be detected with mass spectrometry.
Blood samples are drawn from a pricked finger tip into a 10 milliliter tube. They can be kept fresh for about a week before they have to be used in the blood analyzer, a gizmo about the size of a scientific calculator that produces varying shades of yellow depending on the cholinesterase level.
There is still a lot of uncertainty around this news, both about what happened and what, if anything, to do about it. At least there are relatively specific tests that can be done to sort out the first question.
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April 8, 2013 10:34 am
Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of Great Britain, died today at the age of 87. Thatcher, the first woman to lead a Western power, pushed back against socialism in Britain and ushered in a new era of partnerships with Russia.
Thatcher wasn’t exactly an uncontroversial figure. She was fiercely conservative, tough and unwavering in her commitment to her own ideas, earning her the nickname the Iron Lady. “I am not a consensus politician,” she would say. “I am a conviction politician.” Later, she said to her internally warring party “Turn if you like, the lady’s not for turning.”
Some think that this hard-working, hard-headed ethic came from her working class background. Thatcher was born above a shop in Grantham, to a grocer. Early in her career, Thatcher underwent an image overhaul that included changing her voice to be lower. She worked with a speech therapist to lower her register. In Vanity Fair, her biographer chronicles the episode saying, “soon the hectoring tones of the housewife gave way to softer notes and a smoothness that seldom cracked except under extreme provocation on the floor of the House of Commons.”
This sort of commitment and work wasn’t uncommon for Thatcher: if she set out to do something, she did it. And it is that resolve that made Thatcher successful, according to the New York Times:
At home, Lady Thatcher’s political successes were decisive. She broke the power of the labor unions and forced the Labour Party to abandon its commitment to nationalized industry, redefine the role of the welfare state and accept the importance of the free market.
Abroad, she won new esteem for a country that had been in decline since its costly victory in World War II. After leaving office, she was honored as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven.
Thatcher was one of first Western leaders to work with Mikhail Gorbachev, spurring a slow turn towards working with the former Soviet Union. Thatcher pushed British Petroleum to explore oil deals in Kazakhstan to help Gorbachev, eventually creating a giant oil production facility in Azerbaijan that has pumped thousands of barrels of oil a day for the last seven years.
Of course, these policies weren’t universally praised. During her time, inequality in the U.K. rose, and her own former university, Oxford, refused to grant her an honorary degree, making her the first prime minister educated at Oxford to be denied the honor. Here’s the BBC on the internal Oxford debate:
The principal of Mrs Thatcher’s old college, also supported her nomination. Daphne Park said: “You don’t stop someone becoming a fellow of an academic body because you dislike them.”
But Professor Peter Pulzer, of All Souls, who led the opposition, said: “This is not a radical university, it is not an ideologically motivated university.
“I think we have sent a message to show our very great concern, our very great worry about the way in which educational policy and educational funding are going in this country.
Thatcher didn’t comment on the snub, but her spokesperson said, “If they do not wish to confer the honour, the prime minister is the last person to wish to receive it.”
Eventually, however, Thatcher’s political enemies caught up with her. She fought over poll taxes and over water privatization. She called Nelson Mandela a terrorist. And then, in 1990, she left office.
Here is her last speech to Parliament, made on November 22, 1990.
Of course, no one with such sway stays quiet once officially out of politics. Thatcher is thought to have greatly influenced George H.W. Bush in his decisions about the first Gulf War, telling him it was “no time to go wobbly.” She retired from public life in 2002, after a stroke, and it was another stroke that ultimately claimed her life on Monday.
Thatcher was divisive; she was tough; and she was intense. The New York Times closes its obituary of the Iron Lady with this quote:
“Margaret Thatcher evoked extreme feelings,” wrote Ronald Millar, a playwright and speechwriter for the prime minister. “To some she could do no right, to others no wrong. Indifference was not an option. She could stir almost physical hostility in normally rational people, while she inspired deathless devotion in others.”
And while many disagreed with her policies, most agree that her resolve was admirable and her precedent as a woman in charge opened doors for generations after her.
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March 29, 2013 9:30 am
This week, the Supreme Court of the United States has been hearing arguments for and against the legalization of gay marriage, and the hearings have rekindled the debate among American people, outside the courthouse, in the news, on Facebook. But the U.S. isn’t the only nation struggling with the gay marriage issue. Here are where the debate stands in other countries around the world:
There are a few places where gay marriage is legal. Denmark began allowing couples to marry last year. Argentina did three years ago. It’s also legal in Belgium, Canada, Iceland, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Sweden and the Netherlands.
Spain legalized gay marriage eight years ago and ever since has been hearing counterarguments in court. It wasn’t until November of last year that the highest court in Spain rejected an appeal presented by conservatives, perhaps closing the case for good.
Other places are debating the issue much like we are. France in many ways seems like a mirror to the United States. The senate there will make a final vote on a bill that would legalize marriage and adoption for gay couples in April. Riot police were called to an anti-gay marriage protest on Sunday, where most estimate there were about 300,000 protestors (although conservatives who organized it claim there were 1.4 million). France’s president, much like our own, supports the bill.
Colombia is debating the issue now, and Uruguay will vote in April. Taiwan started hearing arguments on gay marriage this year, and if they legalize it they’d become the first nation in Asia to do so. India decriminalized homosexuality in 2009 but has yet to broach the marriage subject.
In China, the gay marriage question is a little different. The Los Angeles Times explains:
Women who unwittingly married gay men, dubbed “gay wives,” have pleaded to be able to annull their unions and then be labeled as “single” rather than “divorced,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported in January. Gay rights advocates countered the real solution was to allow same-sex marriage.
Sixty percent of U.N. countries have abolished laws that ban same-sex couples, but two-thirds of African countries still have laws banning homosexuality. Five countries still punish homosexuality with death: Sudan, Mauritiania, Nigeria, Somaliland and Afghanistan. In Russia, a huge proportion of the citizens are opposed to gay marriage—85 percent according to one poll. Five percent of the people polled said that gays should be “eradicated.”
The tides are turning elsewhere. In Uganda, an anti-homosexuality bill has been in the works since 2009, but protests against it have kept it from becoming law. Malawi no longer enforces its anti-gay laws. And even in Russia, things might be changing. The country’s first lesbian-only magazine was just published earlier this month.
So the U.S. isn’t alone in tackling the gay marriage question, and they’re certainly not the only citizenry up in arms on either side.
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March 22, 2013 2:54 pm
They’re healthy; they’re plentiful; they’re kosher. Just in time for Passover, some Israelis are taking advantage of a swarm of locusts flying in from Egypt to whip up a unique holiday snack. The versatile insects, which are a couple inches long, are apparently equally tasty breaded and fried or covered in molten chocolate.
Israel has been dealing with the swarm for the past couple weeks, the BBC reports. Locusts can eat their body weight in a farmer’s crops per day, so innovative humans have decided to turn the tide on the hungry pests by eating them.
Eucalyptus, a fancy restaurant in Jerusalem, for example, has a particular interest in ancient Biblical food, according to the BBC. The chef there, Moshe Basson, recommends cooks “drop them into a boiling broth, clean them off, and roll in a mixture of flour, coriander seeds, garlic and chilli powder. Then deep-fry them.” He adds that they can also be mixed with caramel and pan-fried as a crunchy, sweet snack. The BBC continues:
Locusts are usually hard to source in Israel and Basson has to get them from a specialist lab. But nothing, he says, beats freshly gathered, locally sourced, wild ones.
Locusts that have feasted on sesame plants acquire an oily, shiny tinge, and are said to be particularly delicious.
Locust is the only kosher insect, and the Torah states that red, yellow, spotted grey and white locusts are fine for eating. Rabbi Ari Zivotofsky told the BBC, however, that he regularly fields calls from concerned Jews about whether or not everyone can eat locusts, or only those Yemenite and North African Jews who had a tradition of eating them. For Jews in Europe, the tradition likely died out since locusts rarely make their way that far north. But that doesn’t mean Ashkenazi Jews can’t enjoy locusts, he says.
While there are simply too many locusts to eat the swarm out of existence, Israelis who do tuck in will enjoy a healthy—and reportedly delicious—source of zinc, iron and protein.
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February 13, 2013 12:07 pm
In 2007, a powerful drought sent people living near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers—which feed Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey—to turn to the stores of fresh water locked underground. In response to the drought, says NASA, “the Iraqi government drilled about 1,000 wells”—a project that increased consumption of groundwater from aquifers buried deep beneath the country.
That 2007 spike in groundwater use was one dramatic example of a longer trend in the region, documented in a new study, of over-using the fresh water that is stored in subsurface aquifers. In the video above, satellite estimations gathered by NASA’s GRACE mission show the seasonal ebb-and-flow of the region’s groundwater stores, with aquifers filling up in the winter and draining in the summer. On top of this annual oscillation, you can also see the obvious trend of the aquifers steadily drying out over the 2003-2009 study period: the winter blues get less blue, and the summer reds get deeper.
Relying too heavily on groundwater can cause these subsurface stores of fresh water to fade. What’s happening in the Middle East has also been a problem in the midwestern United States, especially during this past summer’s drought. Aquifers take a long time to fill back up, and eventually, they will dry out.
Some of the groundwater loss in the Middle East did come from the 2007 drought conditions (rather than people’s response to them) and from other effects. But NASA says that “about 60 percent” of the region’s shrinking water supply was because of overdrawn groundwater stores.
According to the Associated Press, the mismanaging of their groundwater supplies means that the Middle Eastern countries have now effectively lost “117 million acre feet (144 cubic kilometers) of its total stored freshwater,” a volume “almost the size of the Dead Sea.”
The study is the latest evidence of a worsening water crisis in the Middle East, where demands from growing populations, war and the worsening effects of climate change are raising the prospect that some countries could face sever water shortages in the decades to come.
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